About healthycaregiver

I took care of my husband for 10 years while he had earlier-onset Alzheimer's disease. My experience, along with my expertise as a wellness coach and health writer, prompted me to write a book on how caregivers can maintain their health, increase energy, and experience peace. My book "Calmer Waters: The Caregivers' Journey Through Alzheimer's and Dementia" will be released in June, 2016 by Cardinal Publishing Group. Please follow my blog for caregiving advice and the latest scientific studies on staving off dementia and supporting cognitive function.

Online therapeutic activities for people with Alzheimer’s and their caregivers

Elderly woman and a younger woman work on a jigsaw puzzle.

Are you at your wit’s end trying to find something that your loved one can do that doesn’t require driving to an ice cream parlor or sitting through a movie that you’ve both watched a dozen times?

The Alzheimer’s Federation of America’s Teal Room is a godsend for those who need therapeutic activities that you can enjoy in your own space via a computer or other electronic device.

Developed in 2021 as a free online classroom, the AFA Teal Room offers on-demand recordings of creative arts therapies, musical performances, participatory music sessions and sing-alongs, fitness and movement classes, and art, gardening, and nature programs.

Music videos

  • Sundays with Suzanne is a fun music program that includes songs from Broadway Musicals. In one 30-minute performance, Suzanne sang “Take Me Back to New York” from the musical The New Yorkers by Cole Porter, and “Where or When” written by Rodgers and Hart from the musical Babes in Arms.
  • A brief energetic dance performance by The New York Studio of Irish Step Dance will have everyone in the room tapping their feet.
  • Steven Carl McCasland plays the piano for half-hour concerts including tunes from The Golden Age of Broadway, and Gershwin hits.
  • Anthony Ferrara plays jazz classics such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” on the clarinet.

Art Therapy

Marnie is an art therapist who leads a class starting with a breathing exercise to induce relaxation. She follows this with “scratch word art.” Materials required: black tempera paint, oil pastels or crayons, masking tape, a paintbrush, popsicle sticks, or the back of a paintbrush used for scratching the design. https://vimeo.com/showcase/8568757

A therapeutic activity of the day is also offered such as an art appreciation tour of The Ermitage in Russia.

Tovertafel is an online interactive game company that has games specifically designed for seniors living with dementia. The games can be played individually or in a larger group. Their games are meant to provide cognitive, physical, social, and sensory stimulation for both elderly people and those living with dementia, and to those who care for them.

One of their games called “Leaves” activates players to swipe the swirling leaves off the table and enjoy the rustling sounds. It gives the feeling of being outside and keeps the players’ attention by having them look for lady bugs. https://www.tover.care/us/tovertafel/seniors-dementia?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIwP-Rx6jA_AIVSilMCh3FIAwzEAAYASAAEgJnsfD_BwE

Other one-one-activities

  • Look at family photo albums and pictures of art and nature to prompt conversation.
  • Read a picture book together. Children’s stories can trigger childhood memories.
  • Visit the humane society and play with a dog or cat, if you don’t have one.
  • Plant starter seeds and have your loved one water them and watch them grow into plants that can be put into pots or an in-ground garden in the spring.
  • Make a family tree poster.
    • Work on a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Put some favorite music on and dance together.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

When surgery is recommended for a person with Alzheimer’s

Caregiver holding elderly patient’s hand in hospital bed

Surgery is scary for everyone. But when the patient has Alzheimer’s it can be traumatic. Someone with Alzheimer’s may feel frightened and confused by a new environment and by people they don’t know. They may not understand what is happening to them. Their normal routine will inevitably change, as well as their diet. The list goes on and on.

If your loved one’s doctor is recommending surgery, you’ll want to ask a lot of questions because being in a strange environment will likely cause anxiety (although some patients with dementia might enjoy the special attention). And getting general anesthesia can cause dementia to worsen.

A study published on the Fishman Center for Alzheimer’s Research Foundation’s website found that about half of the patients undergoing surgery at the Marques de Valdecilla-IDAL University Hospital in Spain showed declines in cognitive skills after their hospital stays. https://content.iospress.com/articles/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad191229 But those who had high levels of beta-amyloid, consistent with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease, fared the worst on measures of memory. All the patients were older than 65, and none had dementia before their surgery. https://www.alzinfo.org/articles/prevention/major-surgery-may-accelerate-the-slide-into-alzheimers-disease/

However, Duke University researchers recently found that “in over 100 patients undergoing a wide variety of major surgery types under general anesthesia, we found no correlation between post-operative changes in thinking/memory and in Alzheimer’s disease-related biomarkers in the fluid surrounding the brain and spine . . . This should be a reassuring message to anesthesiologists, surgeons, older surgical patients and their family members,” said lead author of the study Miles Berger, M.D. https://corporate.dukehealth.org/news/no-link-between-cognitive-changes-alzheimers-markers-after-major-surgery

Things to consider

  • Plan a consultation with the doctor to discuss the specifics, and have an honest discussion. Is the surgery absolutely necessary? What might happen if your loved one does not undergo surgery? Will the surgery provide a better quality of life, i.e. reduce pain and increase mobility? Prolong the person’s life? What is the worst-case scenario if they do not undergo surgery? Is there an alternative solution to the problem, i.e. complementary medicines and/or modalities such as acupuncture or biofeedback? Ask if you can record the discussion in order to review it later. Consider getting a second opinion.
  • If your family member plans to go ahead with the surgery, look for a hospital that has adopted the ACS Geriatric Surgery Verification Program. The medical community is starting to recognize that a routine surgery for an adult may be very different for an older patient, especially one who has dementia. The Geriatric Surgery Verification (GSV) Program has 32 surgical standards (two of which are optional) designed to improve surgical care and outcomes for older adults. Optimizing surgical care for older adults is critical, as patients 65 years and older account for more than 40% of all inpatient operations (and increasing).https://www.facs.org/quality-programs/accreditation-and-verification/geriatric-surgery-verification/
  • Before surgery make sure all the legal papers are signed and in order such as a DNR (do not resuscitate), POA (power of attorney), etc., and that you hand over the appropriate signed documents to the medical facility or doctor.
  • If your loved one falls and breaks a hip, or is injured in an accident, you will have to make swift decisions. Keep a copy of the important documents mentioned above in your glove compartment. Be prepared for the patient to experience “delirium” afterward. This is common among people with Alzheimer’s who need general anesthesia. Stay calm. There’s a good chance the patient will recover and revert back to their usual state. However, as mentioned above, 50% of older patients who undergo surgery show cognitive decline afterward.
  • If the surgery is pre-scheduled do everything you can to make the hospital experience as easy as possible. Bring favorite “toys”, music, clothing, foods, etc. Have someone who is comfortable with the patient, and whom the patient is comfortable with, stay overnight, if possible.

Patient delirium

Delirium after surgery is common for older people and those with Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a byproduct of anesthesia and the stress of being in an unfamiliar environment where there’s a steady flow of nurses and care providers coming in and out of the room. Remind the nurses to introduce themselves when they come in to care for your loved one. This will help make the experience less stressful.

Your loved one may not remember that they had surgery. Let them know what it was for and that they’ll get better. Tell them where they are, who will visit or already visited, and how long they will be in the hospital.

Try to distract your loved one if they don’t understand what is going on, and if they try to get out of bed. If they normally watch TV, watch it together. Put on their favorite music, or read to them. Aromatherapy essential oils are wonderful for calming down someone with anxiety and agitation.

Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy can be a resource of comfort to you and your care partner by providing an easy, natural way to reduce stress and anxiety and uplift mood. To make sure you are buying a pure essential oil and not synthetic fragrance oil, look for the botanical name of the plant and the phrase “pure essential oil” on the label. Essential oils can be used in a wide variety of ways, but the most common methods are by inhalation or topical use, such as lotion, body oil, or in a bath. My favorite method which I used for my husband is an electric micro-mist diffuser, and available by mail order or at health food stores. These disperse essential oils into the air in a cool mist or can be gently warmed in a candle-heated aroma lamp that releases the aroma into the air. Another easy way is to add 30-40 drops of essential oils to a 4-ounce water spritz bottle. Favorite oils for reducing stress and anxiety include: lavender, Holy basil, clary sage, geranium, rose, and ylang ylang. Citrus oils uplift the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety, and are useful for appetite support: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange.

Aromatherapy is also great for caregivers!

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

10 ways for caregivers to reduce holiday stress

Happy holidays! Thanksgiving is almost here! It’s almost inevitable that most of us feel more stressed during the holiday season. There’s always so much to do if you’re planning to get together with friends and family. And for those who are grieving or alone, the stress can be debilitating. If you’re a caregiver, you’re undoubtedly even more stressed.

The most important thing is to take care of YOU. If you get stressed and exhibit anxiety, those around you are going to feel it. It becomes a vicious cycle. You get stressed, and then the person you care for may get irritable, nervous, or anxious.

Make this your mantra: eat healthily, drink water, take a daily walk, and sleep well. It sounds easy, but how do you do that when your time is limited and you feel stretched in every which way.

Or how do you take care of yourself when you’re so depressed it’s hard to get out of bed? (This is a huge topic that I won’t address here, but you might want to read: Have you tried any of these natural ways to combat depression? https://barbracohn.2018/10/03/have-you-tried-any-of-these-natural-ways-to-combat-depression/

  1. Make a pot of soup that will last several days. Lentil, split pea, vegetable, chicken, butternut squash, and tomato soups are chockful of goodness. See below for a yummy recipe.
  2. Do you really need to drink 8 glasses of water each day? According to an article that recently appeared in the New York Times, the answer is no. It depends on a lot of things: how big you are, how active you are, and how much liquid you’re getting through foods and other drinks such as tea and coffee. I had always thought that caffeinated tea and coffee dehydrate you. But according to this article they don’t. Juicy fruits such as oranges, melons, and pears (not to mention summer fruits), contribute water to your total intake. Just make sure that you’re drinking enough so that you don’t get to the point where you feel thirsty or where your lips feel dry.
  3. Exercise is vital to overall health and stress reduction. Whether you live in a cold or hot climate, dress appropriately and find at least 15 minutes a day to get outside and walk.
  4. Show your care partner (the person you care for) a bit of extra attention if you’re able to. Take them for a drive to see holiday lights. Have an afternoon tea in a charming café. Visit your care partner’s best friend, or have them come for a visit. Buy a new CD of their favorite music and play it for them. Light candles at dinnertime. Have them help you with decorations, if possible.
  5. Plan a visit from a music therapist or animal-assisted (AAT)therapist, or find out where you might find them visiting facilities.
  6. Aromatherapy can be a resource of comfort to you and your care partner by providing an easy, natural way to reduce stress and anxiety and uplift mood. To make sure you are buying a pure essential oil and not synthetic fragrance oil, look for the botanical name of the plant and the phrase “pure essential oil” on the label. Essential oils can be used in a wide variety of ways, but the most common methods are by inhalation or topical use, such as lotion, body oil, or in a bath. My favorite method which I used for my husband is an electric micro-mist diffuser, and available by mail order or at health food stores. These disperse essential oils into the air in a cool mist or can be gently warmed in a candle-heated aroma lamp that releases the aroma into the air. Another easy way is to add 30-40 drops of essential oils to a 4-ounce water spritz bottle. Favorite oils for reducing stress and anxiety include: lavender, Holy basil, clary sage, geranium, rose, and ylang ylang. Citrus oils uplift the mind and emotions, relieve stress and anxiety, and are useful for appetite support: bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and orange.
  7. Making art can help you regain a sense of balance. If you’re feeling out of control, and are inclined to create art, set aside a table just for art and make it sacred. Gather your materials and have them easily accessible so that the space is prepared for you to focus on the “now” without a lot of distraction. It’s amazing how making art can melt stress once you get into the creative zone. The same goes for playing an instrument. It doesn’t matter what is going on in the world or how I feel, when I sit down at the piano, everything becomes part of the past and I’m able to enjoy the moment. It actually becomes a meditation.
  8. Speaking of meditation, the buzzword these days is “mindfulness.” There are numerous apps and classes that can teach you how to stay present and act with kindness and compassion. You can also take a meditation class such as Transcendental Meditation, where you learn how to meditate twice a day for 20 minutes. TM has been proven to reduce blood pressure, and help the body recharge by reducing stress. It’s easy and anyone who can think a thought can do it.
  9. Keep it simple. You don’t have to make an elaborate feast (unless you’re a cook and love to do that) to make the holidays special. If you want to make it really easy on yourself, order a meal for the number of people at your table. Grocery stores like Whole Foods provide dinners that are yummy and healthy (and yes, a little expensive). Or make the essentials and buy a pie.
  10. This holiday season stop and smell the flavors and enjoy the little things: a walk in the woods, a new baby’s smile, a toddler’s romp, a new sweater, or a pair of socks. Get out the photo albums and reminisce. Watch funny YouTube videos of animals and children. Watch a comedy together. Borrow your neighbor’s dog to take on a walk. Walk in the snow (please wear treaded boots so you don’t fall). Enjoy the moment because time passes quickly and what’s here this year may not be here next year.

While most families are hoping to get together for the first time in a couple of years due to COVID, it’s important to keep abreast of the latest health and safety directives in your area. The number of COVID cases is on the rise again. Please wear a mask when flying, traveling by train or bus, and when you’re in crowded places such as a grocery store. Get a COVID booster and seasonal flu shot. If you feel sick, please stay home! There’s nothing like exposing your loved ones to an illness and having them get sick to make you feel guilty and everyone stressed.

One of my favorite soup recipes to enjoy throughout the winter

Pasta y Fagioli—a one-pot meal, 4 servings

  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 carrots cut into 1/4 inch pieces
  • 2 stalks of celery, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 leek, peeled and cut into 1/4-inch pieces (discard the top, tough stalk or keep to use when making vegetable broth)
  • 1 zucchini, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 1 yellow squash, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
  • 2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • Herbs of your choice: basil or thyme
  • 1 28-ounce can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 quart of stock –vegetable or chicken. Add water if needed to cover the veggies
  • 2 cans of white beans (navy, butter, or cannellini)
  • 8 oz of pasta of your choice
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Grated parmesan cheese

Heat the oil in a soup pot on medium. Add the onion and cook for about 5 mins., occasionally stirring. Add the other vegetables, until they begin to soften, about 8 minutes. Stir in the garlic, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the broth and tomatoes and their juice.

Separately, cook the amount of pasta you want to put in the soup. Keep the pasta separate or it will turn to mush. Add a serving of pasta to the soup and top with grated cheese. Serve with bread and salad. Delicious!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: The Caregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”–winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in self-help– in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

The Benefits of Music Therapy for Dementia (This article appeared in the Daily Camera’s “Aging at Altitude” special insert Oct 2022.)

Seniors in nursing home making music with rhythm instruments as musical therapy

Years ago, I attended a drumming circle with my husband at the memory care home where he lived. Music therapist John Crowder had the group mimic his rhythmic conga drum-playing as the residents shook gourds.

“You know, we all have a drum right here,” Crowder said, pointing to his heart. Although some of the members of the group were non-verbal, at least half of them seemed to understand exactly what he meant. Throughout the forty-five minute session, several people broke into song, which he used to simultaneously lead the group in singing and music playing.

Music therapy is becoming more widely understood as a valid healthcare profession and method for working with memory care patients and neurologically impaired individuals. Hundreds of studies and documented cases illustrate how music has a positive effect on people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. It’s not unusual for the communication veils to lift after a person with dementia is exposed to a guided music therapy session. Family members find this limited, albeit temporary, period to be extremely meaningful and precious.

Board-certified music therapist Mikayla Findley uses music as a tool to engage the residents at Alta Vita Living in Longmont in drum circles, creative music-making, songwriting, and singing.  “Overtime, in brain diseases there is a degradation of brain matter. Much more than an emotional device, when we listen to music it can become a special neurological tool that enlivens multiple areas of the brain. The physical, emotional, intellectual, physical, and communication centers of the brain become engaged,” she said.

“Depending on the person who is participating in the music, the sense of touch can also be stimulated,” Findley said. “Vibrations can be felt and music can provide not just aural, but a tactile stimulation.”

Since the auditory system is the first system in the brain to fully function before birth, we are exposed to music right from the start. Since people with dementia are often able to retrieve memories from long ago, music is often the catalyst for the emotions that arise, and can sometimes stimulate conversation.

Findley said, “I had a one-to-one experience with a person at a nursing home who was non-verbal and apathetic. She’d babble and vocalize sounds but didn’t speak. I’d use music to communicate with her because we couldn’t communicate verbally. I discovered that she loved drums and in the majority of our sessions, we had a musical call and response on the drums.

“Sometimes I would play the guitar. Eventually, I’d put it down and sing and she would sing the words to “You Are My Sunshine” and “Que Sera Sera.” The woman was extremely vocal and awake with an upright posture during our sessions. She’d say ‘good-bye’ and was more alert for hours afterwards.”

Leonard Bernstein once said, “Music can name the un-nameable and communicate the unknowable.” Music can evoke memories, increase social interaction in people with dementia, and help them form trust with their caregivers. It can act as a stress diffuser, up-lifter, and natural medicine.

Music stirs memories and allows people within a group to enjoy something together. It’s a wonderful way to help people interact, communicate, have fun together, and reduce feelings of loneliness and depression. Soothing music can reduce sundowning in people with Alzheimer’s who experience anxiety, restlessness, and confusion in the evening.

Findley added, “As we outline all these areas of function, we see that music can engage the whole person, which is what makes it such an effective tool.”

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

How would you rate yourself as a caregiver?

It’s been 12 years since my husband passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Even now ask myself if I could have done more for him. I still have guilt, even though I saw a therapist for the last three years of his life who said to me, “If a friend were telling you what you’re telling me, what would you say to her?”

I’d tell her, “You’re doing the best that you can.” My therapist nodded his head and reminded me that I was doing the very best that I knew how, and physically was able to.

I was pragmatic and philosophical about my husband’s Alzheimer’s. I was really good about taking him to his doctor appointments and utilizing every complementary healing modality that was available, such as acupuncture, massage, and even some pretty far-out techniques which I don’t even remember the name of. We hired gentle-touch practitioners, psychic healers, and astrologers. You name it. We tried them all. I even bought an expensive stress-reducing massage bed that emits infrared light and has jade balls that massage the spine by riding from the neck to the ankles.

Did these modalities help? I think so. They certainly helped reduce the stress that we both felt. Did they delay the symptoms of Alzheimer’s? Probably not, but my husband outlived his prognosis by two years, according to his doctor, so I have to believe that a good diet, nutritional supplements, and the support of loving friends and family played a huge role.

Yet, still, I think there were a few things I could have done better. I could have worked harder to acknowledge Morris’s reality. By that I mean I could have done a better job of redirecting him when he got anxious or worried. I realize that it’s easier to say this now, more than a decade after he died. But I wish I had more skill and practice in switching the topic from his obsession about having his car keys taken away, or his discomfort when I’d take him for a ride in the car and he’d complain about every bump in the road.

I wish I had shown him more affection by holding his hand or rubbing his shoulders. I actually told him one day at the breakfast table that I could not have an intimate physical relationship with him anymore because I felt more like his mother than his wife. This is a hard thing for me to admit, and I feel so sad that I said this to him. The reason I’m writing it here is to tell you that you don’t have to be 100% honest with what you express to the loved one you are caring for. It’s okay to withhold things because if your loved one has dementia s/he is already having difficulties processing normal everyday activities. There’s no need to get into a deep philosophical discussion or one in which you have to express what you are going through. Create a time and space for that to happen with a dear friend or a therapist.

If you feel guilty or are unsure of whether you’re doing enough ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you feel that you aren’t doing enough for your care recipient? Make a list of everything you do for the person you care for. Preparing a meal, shopping for groceries, driving to appointments, making a bed, doing laundry, making a phone call, sitting next to the person, even just giving a hug: the list adds up! You are doing a lot more than you think you are!
  • Are you guilty about your negative feelings? Resentment, anger, and grief are all normal. They are just feelings and they aren’t wrong. Feelings are complicated and you are entitled to them. You probably love the person you are caring for but the time you spend is precious and you might rather be outside gardening or hiking or traveling.
  • Do you feel bad about taking time for yourself? Don’t! If you don’t stay well, including eating and sleeping well, there’s a good chance you will get sick. And that is not going to help anyone! Please take some time for yourself. If you are a full-time caregiver, at least take a 15-minute walk every day. Get some respite care. Your local county social services department can most likely provide you with some options for help.
  • Are you feeling inadequate at a caregiver? The Alzheimer’s Association offers free classes on caregiving. “The Savvy Caregiver” is an excellent five-session class for family caregivers. It helps caregivers better understand the changes their loved ones are experiencing, and how to best provide individualized care for their loved ones throughout the progression of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
  • Tips for easing guilt
  • Ask yourself what is bothering you. Talk with a close friend who will not judge you, or with a professional therapist, clergyperson, spiritual teacher, or intuitive guide. Talk about your guilt until you feel your body release the tension that is stored in your muscles and cells.
  • Remember that you are human and not perfect. No one expects you to perform with absolute clarity and grace all the time.
  • You cannot control everything all the time. You are doing the best that you can with the information, strength, and inner resources that you have.
  • Have an “empty chair” dialogue by speaking out loud and pretending that your care partner is in the chair next to you. Express your feelings openly and wholeheartedly. Ask for forgiveness if you feel that you wronged your loved one in any way.
  • Write down your thoughts and feelings. Journaling is a wonderful, inexpensive way to release your concerns and worries on paper. It’s available when your therapist and best friend are not, and you can do it anywhere at your leisure.
  • Strong feelings of guilt, remorse, and grief will diminish over time.  If they continue to haunt you, seek professional help.

I’m still working–on forgiving myself for not being the perfect caregiver. I’m not overwhelmed by it, and I’ve recreated a wonderful, fulfilling life for myself. But I remember my therapist’s words, “You’re doing the best that you can.” I know I did, and that just has to be good enough.

The Alzheimer’s Association offers programs especially designed to benefit people caring for a family member or friend living with dementia by providing more understanding and tools to help navigate the journey. For more information contact 800-272-3900, alz.org.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

How to create a caregiving plan and a personal care agreement

Estate Plan, Living Will, and Healthcare Power of Attorney documents

Whether your loved one is newly diagnosed or at the end of their life, having a caregiver plan is crucial for determining what needs to be done in order to manage the health and well-being of the patient. It helps reduce panic and stress when a crisis occurs and helps get the patient the help they need in a timely manner. It also gives the caregiver peace of mind knowing that you are in control of things.

What does a caregiver plan look like?

A care plan is a form that summarizes a person’s health conditions and current treatments for their care. A care plan can help reduce emergency room visits, and hospitalizations, and improve medical management for people with chronic health conditions. Care plans also offer supportive resources for the caregiver, helping to reduce your stress. It includes information about:

  • Health conditions
  • Medications
  • Healthcare providers
  • Emergency contacts
  • Caregiver resources

Here’s a template for you to print and fill out. https://www.cdc.gov/aging/caregiving/pdf/Complete-Care-Plan-Form-508.pdf

If you prefer to create your own care plan, be sure to include the following and put it in a folder or 3-ring notebook so you can update it as needed. It’s also a good idea to keep copies of the important documents in your car glove compartment in case you need to get to the hospital quickly.

  • Emergency contacts: name, relationship, and phone numbers
  • A medical power of attorney: name and phone number, including documentation
  • Medical history
  • Family medical history
  • Allergies
  • Current prescription medicines, supplements, and over-the-counter medications including name, dosage, and schedule of administration
  • Physicians: primary care and all specialists listing the name and phone number
  • Advance directives copy
  • DO NOT RESUSCITATE order, if the patient has one
  • Medical insurance cards – private, Medicare and secondary, or Medicaid copies
  • Driver’s license or government-issued ID – copy

What is a personal care agreement?

This is actually an agreement between the person who needs care and the person who is providing care for compensation. It’s typically used in a relationship between the person who needs care and a family member, friend, or professional care person. Here’s a template that you can use. https://www.agingcare.com/documents/personal_care_agreement_agingcare.pdf

The following is adapted from a piece written by K. Gabriel Heiser on the AgingCare website. https://www.agingcare.com/articles/personal-care-agreements-compensate-family-caregivers-181562.htm

Personal care agreements are required to include the following in order to avoid the transfer of money which would be considered a gift by Medicaid:

  • The agreement must be put in writing before the personal care services are provided.
  • The agreement must detail which services are included and which are excluded for the purposes of compensation (e.g. non-medical care only, food shopping and meal preparation, light housekeeping, assistance with daily living activities, transportation to dental, adult day care and medical appointments).
  • The agreement must be signed by the care recipient and the person agreeing to perform the services. If the recipient is unable to sign due to mental or physical incapacity, their power of attorney may sign on their behalf.
  • All signatures on the contractual agreement must be notarized at the time of signing.
  • The agreement must include a contract date.
  • It must specify rates for services that are comparable to the rates charged by commercial care providers located in the same vicinity.
  • How much and when the caregiver will be compensated should be included.

The caregiver must keep an accurate record of which and when services they provide, and a log of payments they receive. This documentation is very important if the care recipient ever needs to file a Medicaid application because it proves that they have given this money in exchange for care services and not given it away to obtain financial eligibility for long-term care covered by Medicaid.

It’s important to check on the payment requirements in your state. These contracts typically require that the care provider are paid on a weekly basis, or a more flexible pay-as-you-go basis. Some states permit lump sum payments to cover future care for the remainder of a care recipient’s lifetime. If you decide on this arrangement, it’s advised that you consult an elder law attorney or legal professional with Medicaid planning expertise.

Resources

Family Caregiver Alliance
National Center on Caregiving
(415) 434-3388 | (800) 445-8106
Website: www.caregiver.org
E-mail: info@caregiver.org
FCA CareNav: https://fca.cacrc.org/login
Services by State: https://www.caregiver.org/connecting-caregivers/services-by-state/

Family Caregiver Alliance (FCA) seeks to improve the quality of life for caregivers through education, services, research, and advocacy. Through its National Center on Caregiving, FCA offers information on current social, public policy, and caregiving issues, and provides assistance in the development of public and private programs for caregivers.

Medicaid
www.medicaid.gov

National Care Planning Council
www.longtermcarelink.net

National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA)
For a low-cost 30-minute consultation, contact your local city or county Bar Association.
www.naela.org

Paperwork and related information

101 Law Forms for Personal Use (10th ed., 2016)
Elder Care Agreement
www.nolo.com

Long Term Care Personal Support Services Agreement
Department of Health and Human Services, Office for Family Independence (2011)
www.maine.gov/dhhs/ofi/documents/LTC-Personal-Support-Agreement.pdf

And don’t forget your own needs. Caregivers deal with an enormous amount of stress. Be sure to have a plan to take care of yourself because if you get sick, who will take care of your loved one?

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Cataract surgery reduces dementia risk

It seems that almost all my friends are needing cataract surgery. And that’s probably a good thing. Because studies are indicating that cataracts increase your risk of developing dementia.

What is cataract surgery?

Nine in ten people develop cataracts by the time they’re 65, and an estimated 2 million (mostly older) Americans get cataract surgery every year.

A cataract is an opacification or clouding of the natural lens of the eye. The surgery involves the removal of the lens and replacement with an intraocular lens or artificial replacement for the lens of your eye. It’s considered one of the safest, most effective, and most common procedures performed today.

Research shows a link between vision loss and dementia

A recent study in JAMA Internal Medicine analyzed the relationship between cataract surgery and the risk of developing dementia. The researchers discovered that people who had cataract surgery had a 29 percent lower risk of developing dementia when compared to people who didn’t have the surgery. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34870676/

The research also found that glaucoma did not affect the risk of dementia.

How does cataract removal protect brain health?

  • Cataracts can reduce vision, which may lead to depression. Depression is a risk factor for dementia.
  • One study found that the integrity of the eye is essential for the structure and function of the brain. “Cataract patients often present with accelerated age-related decreases in brain function, but the underlying mechanisms are still unclear.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29548900/ Vision impairment can lead to reduced sensory input to the brain, and this leads to less brain stimulation and loss of brain function.
  • People who have vision loss may be less engaged in physical activity and social interaction. This can lead to an increased risk of dementia.

Ways to help prevent cataracts

  • Eat a Mediterranean-based diet including foods that are high in vitamin C, vitamin E, lutein and zeaxanthin. Low levels of lutein and zeaxanthin are associated with cataracts, whereas higher levels help to reduce the risk of developing cataracts.
  • Lutein and zeaxanthin are carotenoids and are found in spinach, Swiss chard, kale, parsley, pistachios, green peas, egg yolks, sweet corn, and red grapes. They are best absorbed when eaten with a healthy fat such as olive oil or avocado.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from UV rays.
  • Quit smoking. Smoking increases the free radicals superoxide and hydroxyl radicals that damage the lipids and proteins in the eyes. This causes deposits to form on the lens of the eyes and leads to cataract formation.
  • Maintain healthy blood sugar levels. People with diabetes are more likely to develop cataracts.
  • Restrict consumption of alcohol, which can increase the risk of cataracts by increasing the body’s inflammatory response, free radical production in the eyes, and dehydration. Dehydration affects the proteins in the lens of your eyes.
  • Get regular eye exams.

Get more bang for your buck

If your eye doctor is suggesting that you have surgery to remove cataracts, do it sooner than later. Because cataract surgery will not only sharpen your vision, it may very well sharpen your mind.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

20 ways to make Zooming with a person who has dementia more meaningful

It’s often difficult to communicate in person with someone who has dementia. If that person lives at a distance, it’s even harder. Using zoom is a great option, especially if someone can assist with the mechanics. But if that person is hard of hearing, seeing, or has aphasia communicating on zoom becomes even more challenging.

Here are some ways that you can connect via zoom so that you feel less guilty about not being there or not being able to communicate the way you wish you could.

Even if your conversation is limited to a minute or two, the person on the other end will appreciate your taking the time to check in with them or to just say “hello.” Your loved one may not be able to speak or hear you, but just seeing your face will provide a bit of comfort.

  • Plan to eat together. Ask the person caring for your loved one to prepare something that you both especially like. Eat together and talk about the flavors, colors, and texture. This may be helpful if your loved one is having eating difficulties. Or, indulge in a special treat such as ice cream. This can be an opportunity to reminisce about going out for ice cream. What are your favorite flavors and where is/was your favorite ice cream parlor?
  • Hold up meaningful photos to the zoom screen. Don’t use words like “remember when. . . .” Instead, talk about the people in the photos and the special events where they were taken. Or talk about what those people are doing now, what they’ve done or where they live, etc.
  • Include your pet, if you have one. Dogs and cats contribute feelings of warmth and may elicit memories that your loved one had if they cared for a pet.
  • If your loved one is still engaged in a hobby such as knitting, fishing, quilting, or woodworking, show some of the items that they used or still use. If they painted a picture that you’ve hung in your house, display it on the screen and talk about how much you like it and why etc. If you both knit, plan a knitting session.
  • Does your loved one enjoy gardening? Bring in a pot of petunias or whatever you have growing in the garden, and talk about the colors, the smells, what you enjoy about gardening, and what they have enjoyed.
  • Do you have a hummingbird feeder hanging on the back porch? Show it on your zoom screen if you have a laptop or tablet.
  • If your loved one played an instrument, or if you play an instrument, use the time to play a recording or the actual instrument.
  • Children love to perform, especially on zoom. Have your child dance, sing or do acrobatics for your loved one. If you don’t have any kids, borrow a neighbor’s. It’ll bring cheer to everyone.
  • If your loved one can hear well, maybe they would enjoy being read to. A poem, an aphorism, a joke, a proverb, a short tale–or even a list of the funny things that kids say–may evoke a smile or chuckle.
  • Do you and your loved one share a love for fashion and jewelry? If they’ve gifted you jewelry, wear it while you’re on zoom and talk about how much you’ve appreciated it throughout the years.
  • If you both like to draw or paint, arrange with the caregiver to provide your loved one with the materials to create something while you’re on zoom together. Choose to create your own piece or not.
  • If you have a second digital device, take your loved one on a tour of a country, city, or art museum.
  • Did your loved one enjoy birding or identifying wildflowers? Find an app on your phone or tablet for birds, flowers, etc., and hold it up to the zoom screen. Some of these apps even contain bird songs.
  • Talk about a trip that you’re planning or have recently gone on. Describe it with sensory images using colors, smells, and sounds. What was the highlight of the trip?
  • Do some simple chair exercises together.
  • Find a copy of their local or hometown newspaper and pick out an event or interesting news item to share.
  • It’s been suggested that instead of looking straight into the camera, it’s better to turn your body sideways to the screen into a supportive stance. Supposedly it opens the other person’s visual field because you’re no longer the dominating object on their screen, and also reduces the otherwise excessive amount of eye contact.https://news.stanford.edu/2021/02/23/four-causes-zoom-fatigue-solutions/
  • Repeat or rephrase the last few words that your loved one says. Their last words can help them keep a fluid conversation. This lets the other person know that you heard what they were saying and helps calm them if they’re in distress.
  • Offer compliments freely. “I like your hair” “You look so good today.” “You’ve always been so good at . . . .” This helps establish the connection and lets the person know they are appreciated.
  • Pray together if your loved one would enjoy that.

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Traveling with someone who has dementia (this article first appeared in AAA’s EnCompass magazine)

https://living.acg.aaa.com/travel/15-tips-traveling-someone-dementia

Portrait of a senior couple at sea at sunset

My husband, Morris, loved to travel so much that he memorized plane and train schedules for fun. Until he developed Alzheimer’s, that is. When he was unable to convert dollars into the local currency on our 25th anniversary trip through France and Spain, I realized something was very wrong. He followed me like a puppy dog around Barcelona and was afraid to hop on the subway. I was forced to read maps (not something I’m great at) and choose where to go and what to see, without any input. It was like traveling with a young child. My suspicion that he had Alzheimer’s was confirmed when we returned home.

That winter we went to an all-inclusive resort on the Riviera Maya, south of Cancun, to escape from our new reality. The last-minute get-away helped alleviate the stress of worrying about the future. But I couldn’t totally relax because I quickly learned that you can’t trust someone with dementia to find their way back to an unfamiliar hotel room.

Since he had been an avid lap-pool swimmer, I later took Morris on a quick trip to Glenwood Springs for a soak in the mineral pools. I was concerned that he would have trouble getting dressed in the locker room without my help. My first question to the staff was, “Do you have a family changing room?”

They actually have two, complete with toilet, sink, shower, and fold-down bench. There are also three ADA (American Disabilities Act) accessible rooms in the new restroom facility near the kid’s area at the west end of the property. 

Changing was easy. But Morris was afraid to get into the pool. I later learned that people with Alzheimer’s have difficulty with depth perception and peripheral vision. Their eyes might be healthy, but changes in the brain affect the way they process visual information and alters their perception of the world and how they understand it.

I wish I had known this before our family took a trip to Arches National Park. Morris was terrified as we slowly made our way through the Devil’s Garden. And I became impatient with him, not realizing that he probably felt as though he was about to fall off a cliff.

The good news is that you can travel with someone who has dementia. It’s a bit of a challenge, but it’s doable in the early stages. It just takes more planning, patience, and time. Our family took several fun trips to Hawaii with Morris after his diagnosis. They were even more special than our previous trips because we wanted to enjoy every precious moment together.

20 Tips for traveling with someone with dementia

It’s inevitable that routines will be disrupted while traveling. Here’s how to make it easier on yourself and the person you are caring for.

  1. Don’t leave home without an ID bracelet or wearable GPS unit that can’t be easily removed by your traveling companion. List the person’s name and your cell number on the ID. If the person can still use a cell phone, make sure your number is the emergency contact.
  2. Keep a current photo of your care recipient with you in case you get separated. And carry a laminated card that briefly explains that they have dementia. Showing this to service people helps to avoid frustration, impatience, confusion, and embarrassment.
  3. Consider staying in a hotel rather than with relatives who may be alarmed by or unfamiliar with dementia symptoms. If there’s any sort of drama in the household, this will only add to everyone’s confusion and frustration.
  4. Let the hotel staff know ahead of time of special needs. Ask for a vase of flowers to be placed in your room. They always seem to freshen up the environment.
  5. Bring an aromatherapy diffuser that plugs into the wall. Aromatherapy works like magic to allay anxiety. Put a few drops of lavender oil, sage, geranium, rose, or ylang ylang oil on a pillowcase, or handkerchief that you can stick in a shirt pocket, or in a diffuser. Try out different blends before your trip to see what your traveling companion prefers. Essential oils and diffusers are available at natural food stores and online.
  6. Try to avoid noisy, crowded situations that might provoke anxiety, fear, or confusion. Instead, visit tranquil environments such as art museums and galleries, botanical gardens, and special interest museums. If you’re meeting friends or family, picnic in a beautiful park. If children are included, choose a park with a playground.
  7. Have afternoon tea, cookies, and fruit in your hotel room, and allow time for a nap.
  8. Ice cream treats always work when the going gets rough!
  9. If you’re flying, book a direct flight and limit flight time to under four hours.
  10. Pack everything in a light backpack to carry on board, if possible, to avoid waiting at baggage claim. Carry documents and medications with you.
  11. Leave the lace-up shoes at home. Velcro shoes or slip-on shoes are a must.
  12. Most airports have a seating area a few feet from where you pick up your belongings, where you can put yourselves back together.
  13. Just beyond that is a handicapped seating area where you can hitch a ride on an electric cart that brings you to your gate.
  14. Use the family restrooms, rather than the public restrooms. Your traveling companion will appreciate the help.
  15. Take advantage of early boarding.
  16. Bring your own food, snacks, and water. Make sure you don’t bring anything that qualifies as a liquid. That includes yogurt.
  17. Let flight attendants know about special needs. They are more than willing to help.
  18. Don’t worry about your companion getting locked inside the cabin restroom. It is possible to open the door from the outside.
  19. Bring an iPad or headphones for entertainment and relaxation.
  20. Sit back and try to relax!

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.

Aging and Memory Loss: What’s normal, what’s not, and how to seek help (this article appeared in the Daily Camera’s Aging at Altitude Special Section, spring 2022)

Most of us have had “senior moments” where we’ve run into a friend and momentarily forget their name. Or we search the house for eyeglasses that are perched on our head. Or we walk in circles trying to locate our car in the mall parking lot. Those forgetful moments are fairly typical of being a member of the 21st century with a headful of thoughts and responsibilities.

Putting the car keys in the refrigerator might be something you do if you’re distracted, but storing a dozen cans of pineapple in the dishwasher, or forgetting how to drive home are not normal memory slips. These types of forgetfulness could be a sign of cognitive impairment or a dementia. But the latest research is showing that if you treat early signs of mental decline, you can slow down and possibly reverse cognitive decline.

Ilene Naomi Rusk, Ph.D. is a neuropsychologist, functional brain health coach, and director of The Healthy Brain Program at the Brain and Behavior Clinic (2523 Broadway #200, Boulder, CO, 303-938-9244). Dr. Rusk acts like a detective to fully understand the root causes of a person’s psychological and brain health issues. Then she works with the patient and a functional medicine team with personalized diagnostics, and treatment or interventions, from brain training to nutrition guidance.

“It’s good for everyone to have baseline neuropsychological testing in mid-life even if you have no memory issues,” says Rusk. Most people think cognition is memory, but it’s much more than that. It’s memory, learning, attention and focus, visual and spatial skills, and how we absorb information, retain it and then share it. Cognition is also how we process things visually, auditorily, and spatially.”

There are different categories of cognitive health versus cognitive impairment that can clue me into whether or not someone is headed towards dementia, says Rusk.

“Subjective Cognitive Impairment (SCI) is when you notice a change in your cognition and think ‘I’m a little different than I used to be’, but other people can’t tell and it wouldn’t show up on a memory test.

“The next category is Mild Cognitive Impairment (MCI). This is when you notice changes in your thinking and people around you may or may not notice changes. With MCI you might also have some challenges on neuropsychological tests that show empirical changes. This is a staging system,” says Rusk. “With MCI there’s a great opportunity to intervene, and we want to intervene as early as possible because once you have Mild Cognitive Impairment it’s easier to slip into dementia,” she adds.

The best thing is to tell your doctor if you have concerns and then go to see someone to get properly assessed.

“I recommend that people go directly to a neuropsychologist or neurologist after they’ve spoken to their family physician to look for root causes. There are so many prevention strategies and a new functional medicine methodology to approach cognitive decline. Functional Medicine practitioners look at blood sugar control, blood pressure, gut health, latent, mold, infections, inflammatory markers, stress, sleep patterns, chronic loneliness, and trauma. These are all important things when looking at modifiable root causes of cognitive impairment,” says Rusk.

“We no longer think that Alzheimer’s is only a disease of the brain. That’s definitely an endpoint,” she says. “Everything from dental health to herpes is being looked at, and the amyloid theory of Alzheimer’s is even being questioned by some people. I see trauma healing and stress reduction as important interventions. Chronic stress affects so much in our physiology and unhealed trauma leaves physiologic imprints.

 It’s also important to know,” she adds, “that 70% of dementias are of the Alzheimer’s type and 30% of dementias fall into other categories such as Frontal Temporal Dementia, Parkinson’s, Lewy Bodies, etc. getting properly diagnosed is very important.

The brain pathology of Alzheimer’s often starts 20 years before there are clinical signs. “A person goes from no dementia to SCI, MCI, early stages of dementia, mild, moderate, and severe stages,” says Rusk. “My goal is prevention, and my favorite thing to do is talk to young people about brain health. If we can intervene early, the decline can be delayed and even sometimes prevented.”

Barbra Cohn cared for her husband Morris for 10 years. He passed away from younger-onset Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. Afterward, she was compelled to write “Calmer Waters: TheCaregiver’s Journey Through Alzheimer’s & Dementia”—Winner of the 2018 Book Excellence Award in Self-Help—in order to help other caregivers feel healthier and happier, have more energy, sleep better, feel more confident, deal with feelings of guilt and grief, and to ultimately experience inner peace. “Calmer Waters” is available at AmazonBarnes & NobleBoulder Book StoreTattered Cover Book Store,  Indie Bound.org, and many other fine independent bookstores, as well as public libraries.